By Aaron Pellish and Devan Cole, CNN
Former Gov. Bill Richardson said Sunday he is “cautiously optimistic” that two Americans wrongfully detained by Russia will be released and suggested they could be freed by the end of the year.
Richardson, a former Democratic governor of New Mexico, and his namesake center privately work on behalf of families of hostages and detainees. He recently traveled to Russia to discuss with Kremlin officials the possible release of basketball star Brittney Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan, and he said Sunday that he’s working with the families of both Americans and coordinating with the White House for their release.
“I do think so. Now, I hate making predictions, but yes,” Richardson told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” when asked if he believed Griiner and Whelan may be released before the end of this year.
“I know (the families are) very emotional and this is a very emotional time. All I can say is that the Biden administration is working hard on it,” added Richardson, who served as US ambassador to the United Nations in the Clinton administration. “So am I. We coordinate, but not always agree on every tactical decision. But I’m not going to interfere in their process. I’m just giving you my assessment after two visits to Russia on behalf of American hostages.”
Griner was sentenced in August to nine years in a Russian jail after pleading guilty to drug-smuggling. The two-time US Olympic basketball gold medalist had been arrested at a Moscow airport and accused by Russian prosecutors of trying to smuggle less than 1 gram of cannabis oil in her luggage — which she said she had accidentally packed while in a hurry.
Whelan was detained at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 and arrested on espionage charges, which he has consistently and vehemently denied. He was convicted and sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years in prison in a trial US officials denounced as unfair.
President Joe Biden met separately with the families of Griner and Whelan at the White House last month, marking his first time personally meeting with them since their loved ones were detained in Russia.
On Sunday, Richardson characterized his meetings in Russia as being with “senior Russian officials, individuals close to President (Vladimir) Putin.”
“I am cautiously optimistic,” Richardson said of the negotiations over Griner and Whelan’s release.
“I got the sense that the Russian officials that I met with, that I’ve known over the years, are ready to talk,” he said. “I got a good sense from the Russians — the vibrations — but I’m not a government official.”
The Biden administration had previously distanced itself from Richardson’s efforts. Last month, a senior administration official told CNN that anyone “who’s going to Russia is going as a private citizen and they don’t speak for the US government.”
“I’m not part of the government, the government channel. I’ve always made that clear. I respect that. I think any decision, for instance, a release, a prisoner exchange, has to be made by the President. And I think the administration has done a good job on that,” Richardson said on Sunday.
Richardson on Sunday acknowledged the White House’s trepidation at him being involved in prisoner release negotiations, but cited his experience in past prisoner negotiations, including his role in the release of Trevor Reed from Russian custody earlier this year.
A source familiar with the situation previously told CNN that members of the Richardson Center had traveled to Moscow in February, in the days immediately before the Russian war in Ukraine began, to meet with Russian leadership. Following that visit, the Richardson Center came away with a clear sense of what the Russians were willing to do and how they were willing to do it, which was presented to the White House. Reed was freed in a prisoner swap in April.
“I’ve coordinated with the White House. I’ve coordinated as much as I can, but you know, sometimes they’re a little nervous about my doing this on my own,” he said.
“But at the same time, we’ve had success recently with Trevor Reed, the American hostage in Russia some months ago. Danny Fenster, a journalist in Myanmar at the end of last year,” Richardson added. “So, I know what I’m doing.”
Earlier this month, Biden announced the return of seven Americans who had been detained in Venezuela. The detainees were released in exchange for the release of two Venezuelans imprisoned in the US for conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the country, both nephews of the Venezuelan first lady.
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CNN’s Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.